GAO: Census' handhelds need more scrutiny

The handheld computers the Census Bureau plans to use to collect information for the 2010 census might not be able to do the job adequately, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report recommends that bureau officials establish criteria to determine if the handheld computers and software are capable of performing the tasks needed for the decennial census.

The bureau plans to rely heavily on handheld devices to verify addresses. However, because of escalating costs, the Commerce Department, the Census Bureau's parent department, said in March that it wanted to redesign the bureau’s automation effort.

GAO was asked to analyze data from the bureau and contractors that showed how the devices performed and their effect on operations. GAO auditors also considered how a redesign might affect plans for address canvassing during the 2010 census.

They reviewed data and visited the two dress-rehearsal sites to observe and document the use of the handheld devices in the field.

Auditors recommended that the bureau specify a basis for determining the readiness of the handheld computers and software. They also said the bureau should include a dashboard of performance metrics in its operational field test.

During one of the dress rehearsals, help-desk logs revealed that census workers most frequently had issues with transmitting data, collecting mapping coordinates and working with large blocks of information. They also reported incidents of the devices freezing up during operation.

Bureau officials acknowledged that field workers’ problems in using the technology affected their productivity.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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